As Final Stretch Looms, Wolfpack Circles The Wagon

The tense and sometimes-combative relationship between NC State coach Chuck Amato and the media only got worse this week.

Starting with a request for suggestions on how to improve the team's turnover and penalty problems during his weekly press conference and continuing through terse responses to questions throughout the week, Amato has been on edge, bristling at the criticism directed toward he and his coaching staff.

Much to his credit, Amato said to lay the blame squarely on his chest following a 26-20 loss at Clemson that was lowlighted by 10 penalties and six turnovers. He's shielding his players from any negative press and circling the wagons for the season's final three-game stretch.

The Wolfpack players, however, are ready to accept some of the heat.

"He was quick to say he wanted to take the blame on himself," said redshirt junior tight end John Ritcher of Amato's post-game speech following the loss to the Tigers. "He said, ‘You guys blame this loss on me. Now we've got to come back and get ready for Georgia Tech on Monday.' I thought he handled it very well.

"I appreciate him doing that, that he would take the blame, but it's our job to execute and it's our job not to make mistakes … Our motto is ‘Discipline,' and he tries to enforce it the best he can, and now it's our job to take the discipline.

"We've got to make the best of these next three games, to play them with no turnovers and no penalties."

Ritcher said that senior defensive captains Andre Maddox and Pat Thomas have done a stellar job of leading the squad this season, starting with a player's-only meeting that follows practice on Mondays.

"We do have a good core of leaders, Pat Thomas and Andre Maddox, and they're quick to pull the team back together after tough losses," Ritcher said. "They always have a thing on Mondays where it's just players, no coaches, no anybody, except guys that are playing. They say what needs to be done and they've done a good job of rallying this team and keeping us together. And I expect them to do that tonight."

When asked about the Monday meetings, Amato challenged the assertion that it was players only, saying, "the coaches are standing right there." Maybe Amato is subscribing to the negative connotation surrounding the term "players only"; many associate such meetings with a team dissatisfied with coaching or with severe internal problems, that it's a sign of a squad in turmoil. Not necessarily. For this group of Pack seniors, it's an integral tradition that has proven successful in the past.

"It started my sophomore year, and we've just kept on doing it ever since," said Maddox. "It's still going on. The coaches and training staff are over there, but [the players] sit down and try to encourage the guys to get something off their chests and talk about anything that we have going on."

Ritcher singled out Maddox and Thomas as the leaders of the senior class, and Maddox said that the duo, former high school teammates at Miami Killian, takes the responsibility seriously.

"I think me and Pat speak a lot because we're captains on the team, but we're no better than any other senior," Maddox said. "But I think me and him are a little more vocal, so we're often the ones talking in front of the team."

The nature of State's setbacks this year has compounded the difficulty of the season. The Pack was picked to finish seventh in the league by the media before the season, but its 4-4 record isn't indicative of the talent on the roster. The Wolfpack has been done in time and time again by crucial turnovers and devastating penalties.

"It's a frustrating process. Every week, you go in expecting to win and have the confidence that you can beat your opponent, and you come out of the game with a loss, all because of penalties and turnovers," said redshirt junior cornerback/safety Marcus Hudson. "It's frustrating. Week in and week out, we talk about correcting our mistakes, and the biggest thing is turnovers and penalties. It's just something that we're going to have to deal with as part of our growing process, because we still have a young team. And it's just something that we've got to deal with."

With the disappointment has come a realization that a bowl game could be on the line in the next few weeks. However, the players aren't ready to chalk up the campaign as a harsh lesson in discipline.

"We'll just find something to play for," said Ritcher. "We still have a lot to play for, as far as we want to win out these next games and get to a good bowl. I think that's one thing, and also pride. Losing is the worst thing that can happen to a team, of course, and you've just got to get through it and come back in and start over and work at the basics."

"We're always going to hold our heads up high regardless of what's happening or what the conditions are, because we strive for the highest goals, and whatever goals get knocked down, we're still going to reach for the next immediate goal," Hudson added. "We're not going to have doubt in the rest of our season; we know we still can make this season a great season, regardless of what the record says. It's something to build off of."

After practice earlier this week, Maddox talked passionately about the defense taking the game on their shoulders and rendering any turnovers by the offense meaningless. He spoke about how difficult his senior season has been, with injuries, a switch in how his position has played, and tough loss after tough loss. It was easy to see how important the game – and his team – is to him, and how much resolve he had to help lead the squad back to its winning ways.

"We have good leadership and good coaches," said Ritcher. "Pat and Andre have been very vocal and done a great job of keeping this team together. If any team that I've played on since I've been here can do it, we can."

The road to securing a bowl berth and salvaging the season starts tomorrow at high noon at Carter-Finley Stadium. And it'll take everyone – coaches, players, trainers, support staff – to cast all blame and criticism aside, and get the campaign back on track with a big win over the Yellow Jackets.

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